At Friday’s absorbing discussion about the potential impact of primary church schools on the faith lives of their families, one comment came from the Canterbury diocesan folk there – we really don’t want anybody else telling us as parents that we are not good enough at this or that. I took the point immediately, but it later came up in a broader discussion as to why people feel guilty so often, and live with this sense of not having done enough.
The reason is plain enough. Everybody in the public sphere – the media, government, social services, the economy, schooling – are all highly focused on what we can’t do yet. Thus children are labelled “special needs” not because of their strengths but because of what they can’t do yet. Schools are labelled “good” – but when OFSTED come, they will not want to know about what we can do, but will focus on what we had not done that they told us to do last time. Fashions come and go, and if you have not got the stuff that the fashion gurus are saying is this season’s must-haves, then you are made to feel inadequate, never mind that you have just caught up with buying last season’s stuff at enormous cost. Nobody in the media ever praises the government for what it has done – they only look for the gap between the promises and the reality – and inevitably they find them. And then, just when we were feeling good about our achievements, somebody points out that actually, we are not as good as the family next door, or the school down the road, or the school system in Singapore, or whatever. At a certain level, this is OK – it keeps us humble and realistic. At another level it is appalling, and leads to severe discouragement, depression and incipient mental illness. I have employed two teachers here who came from a “you’re not good enough yet” approach that had early symptoms of PTSD, who would spontaneously burst into tears because we were not adopting that approach.
We all are used to functioning on this deficit model – waiting for some external approbation of our efforts so that we have been measured and can be regarded as good, or good enough. Until we get it, we feel a nagging guilt. Recently, the government advanced some ridiculous proposals on OFSTED’s new model for inspecting good schools that might, on the second day of inspection, convert to RI (or not). The idea is that you keep the “good” label, but you have a couple of years to prove yourself after one day of the inspection and to fix what needs fixing. Thus you are dangling between “requires improvement” and “good” – and straightaway, because of the guilt of the deficit model, the minds of educators are already creating another grading: “good but not quite good enough.”
Why this matters is because the popular psyche, hugely influenced by the deficit model of just about everything, attributes this deficit model to the way that God thinks about us, expecting Him to need us to do stuff to please Him to be accepted. It is not their fault – it is the way our psyche has been formed over centuries. Monday I was leading worship at school and asking the children Who – which people that you know – are really happy? And a child put his hand up and said: God is, if you do what he says. In there is some theological truth, yes, but in the context of happiness and contentment, it was a terribly sad indictment on what this child has been taught and what he thinks about God: underlying it is a sense that he was not fully accepted. It constituted a reminder that the church is as bad at putting these wrong expectations on its people as anyone else. We’ll love and accept you if…..
God, we were reminded on Sunday at St Aldates (a fantastic exposition of Psalm 139 by Tanya Walker from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics), when he looks at us, looks on us with acceptance, affection and love. In no other worldview is this explicit. In no other worldview is forgiveness proffered as a starting point, as a bridge, to get the conversation going.
Paul says to the Corinthians that our adequacy is in God (2 Cor 3:5). David tells us that he stoops down to make us great (Ps 18). Paul tells the Ephesian church that we are His workmanship, His poem, created in Him to do good works (Eph 2:10). We do not live under a deficit model from God – though of course there is no reason not to “make every effort” as Peter tells us (2 Pet 1:5). It is the kindness of God, not the hammerblow, that leads to repentance (Rom 2:4). He loved first, and second, and third….until we came to him, afraid of the hammerblow but needing desperately the understanding that His kindness was enough. We are adequate, significant, full, because of what God has given us, done for us, fought and secured for us, in Christ Jesus. If there is a deficit, it is in my inadequate love for him and my pitiful obedience. But that is a deficit never judged; rather it is a deficit made good by His love, and every move we make to a deeper love for our Saviour is cherished by the one whose affection – whose eye – is ever upon us.